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July 17, 2007

SEC Notebook: Coaches high on the Hawgs

John Pelphrey has a lot of friends in the Southeastern Conference.

It stands to reason since he played for the league's most storied program and was an assistant coach for its newest power player. But his friends didn't do him any favors on the SEC coaches teleconference on Monday. They heaped so much praise on Pelphrey and the team he inherits at Arkansas that you'd think Sidney Moncrief and Marvin Delph were running the show.

"I don't think there's any question he's inherited a team that is very gifted," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whom Pelphrey assisted in Gainesville from 1996-2002. "Their frontcourt is probably among the best in the country."

Alabama coach Mark Gottfried wasn't afraid to anoint the Razorbacks as the favorites in the SEC West.

"I've been joking with him all summer that I'm picking him first," Gottfried said. "I'm putting the pressure right on him. I think he'll handle it well."

It was Gottfried's father, Joe, who gave Pelphrey his first opportunity as a head coach. Joe Gottfried is the longtime athletic director at South Alabama, and he hired Pelphrey in 2002 after the Jaguars had sunk to 8-20.

Pelphrey resurrected the program, including consecutive 20-win seasons and back-to-back postseason berths. South Alabama went 24-7 in 2005-06, losing to Donovan's Gators in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

"We had several hurdles to get over to even be competitive," Pelphrey said. "The program was bankrupt of talent. I've made the analogy on several occasions that it was a blank canvas and they let me paint it how I wanted."

The former Kentucky player packed his easel and took the job at Arkansas in April, days after Creighton coach Dana Altman was introduced and then backed out to stay with the Bluejays. The Razorbacks had fired Stan Heath despite consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and 20-wins seasons.

That might give you some idea of the level of expectation in Fayetteville. Expectations remain high this season with everybody on the roster returning, including SEC Freshman of the Year Patrick Beverley and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Steven Hill. At least the talent level doesn't need much of a touchup.

"I have a lot of respect for Stan and what he did here at Arkansas," Pelphrey said. "We've got some guys with heavy accolades. Steven Hill, defensive player of the year, that's an awesome award. We're excited about him. Patrick plays hard, and he had a tremendous year. He's an everyday guy. He takes a hard hat and lunch pail to work. We've got other guys like Sonny Weems, Charles Thomas, Darian Townes, Gary Ervin. We've got six seniors, and we need to work as hard as we possibly can to give them a special senior year. I know I had one, so we've got a lot of work to do."

The Wildcats went 29-7 in Pelphrey's senior season in 1992. UK was eliminated by Duke 104-103 in overtime in the Elite Eight in one of the most memorable NCAA Tournament games in history. Pelphrey was the team's second-leading scorer at 12.5 points per game, behind Jamal Mashburn.

This Arkansas team doesn't have a player the caliber of Mashburn, but it has a lot of nice parts - not the least of which is experience.

"With experience comes good decision-making," Pelphrey said. "If we commit to working hard and being unselfish they can put themselves in position to compete at the highest level."

Donovan, too, is high on the Hogs.

"I think John is going to do great," Donovan said. "I think he's in a great situation with Arkansas' tradition and support. I also think John having played in our league will help. He understands it and knows the environment. I think he's going to do a terrific job."

The upgrade at Auburn
Tigers basketball coach Jeff Lebo is positively giddy about his university's plans to build a new basketball arena and practice facility.

Groundbreaking is scheduled for next summer, with a completion date in time for the start of the 2010-11 season.

"It's a monumental step here when you talk about basketball at Auburn," Lebo said. "One of the things that all of the coaches that have been here have fought was true commitment to basketball.

"This made a huge statement. There's a commitment from our administrative people and president to put basketball on the map. It's an exciting time. Certainly as a coach we don't have a lot of patience. We just can't get it here quick enough."

Auburn recently has spent a large sum on athletic facilities, including $5.5 million for track, $3.6 million for tennis and $2 million for golf.

"Somebody said it's like an arms race," Lebo said. "You have to have facilities. The kids want to play in nice facilities. Season ticket-holders are demanding better facilities for them to watch games and enjoy the atmosphere. It's not just for recruiting but from fan standpoint. People want to be comfortable and enjoy the game, and you create an atmosphere that they want to come back."

Steele's wheels
Alabama coach Mark Gottfried reports that the rehab of point guard Ronald Steele is progressing slowly but surely.

Steele had arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees in early April. The right knee required the majority of the work.

"It's now a little more than three months since he has done anything," Gottfried said. "I think they're a couple of weeks away from letting him do a little more, maybe play a little. He hasn't been on the court since early April. I'm hoping he can get to 100 percent, but we're not there yet."

Steele at 100 percent makes the Tide an instant contender in the West. A Rivals.com Preseason All-American last year, Steele played in 26 of 32 games and averaged only 8.6 points and 4.0 assists. He struggled with injuries all season, causing the drop-off from his sophomore year numbers of 14.3 points and 4.3 assists per game.

Coaches like Vols
It's tough to get 12 coaches from any conference to agree on anything, but it appears the SEC coaches feel unanimously on two topics: 1) Tennessee is the team to beat and 2) Nobody is sure who their chief competition will be.

"I certainly think Tennessee will be the favorite with all they have coming back," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "I think they probably lost less than anyone else in the division.

"After that, I don't know, it all depends on your view. For instance, where are you going to pick Florida this year? Billy (Donovan) is a great coach, but he lost his top six guys. Then again last time they lost their top guys we all thought they were going to take a nosedive."

Many of the league's other coaches echoed those sentiments and it's easy to see why.

Tennessee returns four starters and their top six scorers from a team that went 24-11 and reached the Sweet 16 before falling to national runner-up Ohio State last season.

Patterson settling in
Kentucky's prize recruit Patrick Patterson, who is attending summer classes at UK, has already impressed new coach Billy Gillispie.

"I think Patrick is a very mature player, maybe more than most freshmen I've been around as far as handling everyday life and classes."

Patterson, a five-star prospect, may be asked to start immediately due to a severe lack of frontcourt depth.

Florida coach Billy Donovan warns not to expect a repeat performance of 2005-06 when the Gators lost their top three players (Anthony Roberson, David Lee, Matt Walsh) but made a surprising run to their first national title. "I think this season is a lot different because we had (Al) Horford and (Corey) Brewer as starters then," Donovan said. "Taurean (Green) got some significant minutes and Lee (Humphrey) started some. We had some real pieces coming back that were already in the rotation. This year's group doesn't have one person who has been in the rotation. Depth is going to be an issue for us. We have lost as much as anyone in the nation has lost."

Georgia coach Dennis Felton said he is pleased with the rehab of junior guard Mike Mercer, who tore an ACL last season, and expects him to be fully healthy for the season opener. The versatile wing averaged 13.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists last season.

LSU's frontcourt will be the focus when the team heads to Toronto on Labor Day weekend for some exhibition games. With the loss of star Glen Davis, who left school early for the NBA, and Magnum Rolle, who transferred to Louisiana Tech, there isn't a big man left on the roster who has seen significant minutes. Junior reserve Chris Johnson and freshman Garrett Green will both get a chance to earn starting jobs.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com. Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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